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Obligatory RIAA bashing

Riaa_logo2 The Recording Industry Assn. of America announced this morning the latest wrinkle in its anti-piracy litigation campaign: it's going to target slightly older young people. OK, OK, that's a cheap shot. The major labels' trade group said its new emphasis would be file-sharing on college and university computer networks. And in fairness, I should dole out some credit before piling on the skepticism customary to any discussion of RIAA lawsuits.

First, one of the main problems with the current campaign is that it doesn't seem to be reducing the number of people sharing files illegally or the number of files being shared. That's not surprising, given the sense among file-sharers of safety in numbers. Despite the fact that more than 18,000 Internet users have been sued, few file-sharers know anybody who's been touched by the long arm of the RIAA. In the more closely knit environment of a college campus, 20 to 50 simultaneous infringement notices (all of which threaten a lawsuit) are likely to create a significant ripple.

Second, another problem with the campaign has been the collateral damage from imprecisely targeted claims. Too often, the RIAA has sued a parent or roommate instead of the actual file-sharer. Focusing on campuses, where individual students all have their own Internet accounts, could reduce such misfires -- especially if college administrators agree to serve infringement notices on students for the RIAA, enabling those responsible for the infringements to settle prior to being sued.

Still, it's far from clear that suing college students will have the intended effect, to wit, reducing piracy and promoting sales. Campuses are hotbeds of music sharing, at least some of which is actually good for the industry because it breeds interest in music and helps people discover songs and bands they like. Suing users of Kazaa and other file-sharing networks could simply drive students to other forms of sharing that aren't so visible to the RIAA's contractors -- dormatory LANs, iPod swaps, DVDs filled with MP3s.

The labels complain that students have cheap and legal sources of music on campus through such services as Ruckus and Napster, so they shouldn't be resorting to illegal downloads. But the services aren't giving many students what they want, which is the ability to load their iPods with tunes at little or no cost. Nor do many students -- or consumers in general -- see the value in subscription services like Ruckus and Napster that provide access to songs, not ownership of them. These are marketing and, to a degree, pricing problems that the labels have been curiously reluctant to address. Lawsuits don't make these problems go away. Litigation might serve some other purpose, but it doesn't take the major labels where they need to go on campus.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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